The government continued its legal reforms in 2004 in efforts to meet European standards in preparation for its hoped-for admission to the European Union. Some of the changes should have positive effects for journalists.
The new press law, passed in June, replaced prison sentences with heavy fines. The harshest penalties, such as shutting down a media outlet or banning newspaper printing or distribution, were also dropped. Protection of journalistic sources was even strengthened. Some journalists prosecuted for "complicity with terrorist organisations" were acquitted after the anti-terrorist law and the criminal code were amended in 2003.
But a new version of the code, which took effect on 1 April 2005, allows "making propaganda for an illegal organisation or its aims" to be punished by one to three years in prison, with the heavier penalty if the offence is committed in the media.
Article 159, under which many journalists have been prosecuted for "insulting the government and state institutions and threatening the unshakeable unity of the republic," was amended in 2002 and 2003. The punishment was reduced from a year to six months imprisonment and criticism not intending to "ridicule" or "insult" state institutions was no longer subject to jail terms. The new criminal code also abolishes the offence of "making fun of and insulting government ministers."
However, in contravention of EU standards, the new code says "insults" are punishable by between three months and three years in prison, with the heavier penalty if the offence is committed in the media (article 127).
In practice, a judge’s interpretation of "criticism" remained very subjective and unjustified prosecutions continued.
Memik Horuz, editor of the far-left magazine Isçi Köylü, has been in prison for several years for expressing his opinions in the course of his job. Nureddin Sirin, a former columnist with the Islamist weekly Selam jailed for "inciting hatred," was freed on 4 November. By the end of 2004, the supreme court had not ruled on his appeal against his 20-month prison sentence for this offence.
A former columnist for the daily Milli Gazete, Hakan Albayrak, was freed on 13 November after being jailed on 20 May for 15 months for "sullying the reputation of Atatürk" under the 1951 law on crimes against the republic’s founder whose article 1 provides for one to three years in prison. Article 2 doubles the penalty if the offence is committed through the media.
Sebati Karakurt, of the daily Hurriyet, was detained for 12 hours at the offices of the anti-terrorist police in Istanbul on 15 October because of an interview which appeared a few days earlier with Murat Karayilan, military chief of the former Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK, now renamed Kongra-Gel). The photo-feature showed smiling and relaxed female rebels in camouflage uniform. A dozen police searched the home of Karakurt, who was freed after being questioned by police and the police prosecutor.
National broadcasting media were allowed to use the Kurdish language but the RTÜK continued to impose excessive penalties, ranging from a warning to cancellation of operating licence, on the pro-Kurdish media or media very critical of the government.
The Istanbul station Özgür Radyo was suspended for a month by the RTÜK on 18 August for "inciting violence, terror and racial, regional, linguistic and religious discrimination or broadcasting programmes that stirred up hatred." The RTÜK can withdraw its operating licence if it reoffends.
The local station Günes TV, in the eastern town of Malatya, was also forced off the air for a month from 30 March after the RTÜK accused it of "undermining the state and its independence and the unshakeable unity of the country with the people and undermining the ideals and reforms of Atatürk" (article 4 of the RTÜK Law 3984). Using the same article, the RTÜK suspended the local TV station ART in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir for a month in April for broadcasting two Kurdish love-songs in August 2003.
Mass arrests of pro-Kurdish journalists by anti-terrorist police on the eve of the NATO summit in Istanbul on 28 and 29 June were typical of the way the pro-Kurdish press is treated.
Nine journalists reporting on the break-up of a demonstration in Diyarbakir against fraud in the 28 March local elections were severely beaten by police and three of them hospitalised. By the end of the year, those responsible had not been punished.
1 journalist was in prison
39 were arrested
14 physically attacked
and 5 media censored